PULLMAN — Washington State, coming off two straight last-place finishes in the Pacific-10 Conference, is the consensus pick to bring up the rear of the Pac-12 North this year.
Paul Wulff, already wearing a bull’s-eye on his back after going 5-27 in his three years as coach, responds to the doubters by saying the Cougars can contend for the North title with nationally ranked Oregon, Stanford, and anyone else.
“It’s time for our players to start thinking that way and putting that up as a major goal to do that,” Wulff said last week as he prepared for Sunday’s opening practice of fall camp. “It’s the next step in the progression of building a program.
“I think these are progressions these guys want and they’ve worked so hard to get to. It’s to not only win, but to win a championship. Our guys sure as heck aren’t practicing and working their tails off to win a couple games.”
Wulff gives little credence to those who pick the Cougars to finish last.
“That’s their opinion,” he said flatly. “That’s fine. I understand why they pick us.
“It doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t anger me. It doesn’t matter to me, to be honest, because believe it or not, it has no bearing on how our kids perform. If anything, maybe it motivates them a little bit.”
Speculation has been widespread among media and fans that the Cougars must show significant improvement this season for Wulff to be retained. He acknowledged that he faces more pressure to win this year.
“I think everyone expects that, and I do myself,” Wulff said. “I really don’t spend a lot of time on it. Sometimes, I just have my blinders on, and I’m doing the job that needs to be done to improve this program, and we’re doing it.
“Our grades are better. Our talent’s better. Our work ethic is better. Our discipline and off-field issues are better.”
Wulff, a standout center at WSU before enjoying a strong run in his first head coaching job at Eastern Washington, stressed from the beginning that off-field improvement was essential if the Cougars were to improve on the field.
“Be consistent with our development as people, players and students,” Wulff said. “When we got all that in line and it starts to roll over, the last thing you get is wins, because that’s the final product of all that.
“I think we’re in a position to get wins. Are we going to get a championship? I don’t know. We’re going to find out. Who knows how it evolves?
“But I will tell you this: This program is headed in that direction. As youthful as it is, it’s only going to get better and better.”
Athletic director Bill Moos said he is supportive of Wulff, though there has been no discussion about extending the coach’s contract beyond 2012.
“My support for him is unwavered,” Moos said, “and I’m pleased with the progress that has been made this past year, especially in recruiting.
“I’m behind him 100 percent. Nobody hopes more than me that we have a successful season.”
Wulff said there is “no question” this year’s team appears to be his best at WSU.
He hopes that leads to the Cougars’ first bowl appearance since a 2003 win over Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
“I think we’ve got a legitimate chance, I really do,” Wulff said. “Things have got to evolve … the right guys have to stay healthy.”
KEY QUESTIONS FOR WSU
1. Can the offensive line block anybody?
WSU finished 2-10 last year (1-8 Pac-10), largely because the Cougars ranked 119th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in quarterback sacks allowed (51) and 117th in rushing yards per game (91.0). The offensive line returns largely intact and should benefit from experience gained under Steve Morton, a highly respected O-line coach who returned to his alma mater last year. The Cougars hope freshmen Rickey Galvin (who redshirted last year) and Marcus Mason can join senior Logwone Mitz in spicing up a running attack that must improve to take pressure off talented junior quarterback Jeff Tuel. Jeff Karstetter and Marquess Wilson lead a quality group of receivers.
2. Can the defense stop anybody?
The 2010 Cougars ranked 104th or lower all five major team defense statistics, including yards allowed per game (118th at 467.0). Young players like defensive end Travis Long, strong safety Deone Bucannon and middle linebacker C.J. Mizell learned on the job last year. Coach Paul Wulff raves about the leadership qualities of players like outside linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, free safety Tyree Toomer, cornerback Nolan Washington, and middle linebacker Mike Ledgerwood.
3. Can the special teams remain special?
The Cougars are unproven in several key areas of special teams, though Andrew Furney showed a strong leg as a true freshman handling the No. 1 kicker duties last year. A pair of four-year starters, Reid Forrest (seventh in the nation in punting) and Zach Enyeart (a rock-solid long snapper), graduated along with kickoff specialist Niko Grasu. WSU led the nation in kickoff returns defense last year (17.0). The Cougars are hoping freshman Rahmel Dockery can help out on kick returns, but he has yet to be cleared academically.